If Desert Bloom were not quite so sure of its own importance, it might be a great movie. It’s still a good one, though, and well worth recommending even with its problems.
At its heart, it is a family drama, filtered through the nearsighted eyes of a 13-year-old girl, Rose (Annabeth Gish), who struggles through the winter of 1950-’51 in Las Vegas with her eternally perky mother (JoBeth Williams), two sisters, stepfather (Jon Voight), and beloved aunt (Ellen Barkin), who is visiting to secure a Nevada divorce, and maybe to secure a high-rolling sugar daddy.
Most of the struggles spring from the instability of the stepfather, a disturbed alcoholic veteran, whose erratic and sometimes violent behavior becomes worse as he tries to figure out what the government is doing in the wasteland north of town.
What they’re doing out there is setting up a bombing range where atomic weapons will be detonated. This proximity provides the domestic drama with a suitably humbling perspective, as the characters conduct their fragile human business with a cloud over their heads – in this case, a cloud shaped like a mushroom.
It also provides writer-director Eugene Corr many opportunities for gallows irony. Townspeople trill ecstatically about the fun of being part of history; Voight changes the name of his desert service station to “Atomic Gas”; Williams rouses the kids out of bed on the morning of the first blast with a cheery, “Rise and shine, it’s A-bomb time.”
Some of this humor seems uncomfortably patronizing to the characters in the film. Corr’s point may be that the government was not sufficiently informing the populace of the dangers involved, but his tone sometimes smacks of hindsight superiority.
This is all the more bothersome because so much of the film is beautifully written and acted, especially by Gish, Barkin, Jay Underwood (as Gish’s first love interest) and Allen Garfield, as a neighbor fearful of the bomb’s effects. Garfield immediately taps the audience’s identification, as he often does, in part because Voight’s character is so difficult and unsympathetic.
Voight’s performance dominates the film. The depth of his earnestness is astonishing, yet busy mannerisms crowd his character. He gets a few incredible moments, such as his pronouncement, after a spell in a detox hospital, that “From now on, I’m gonna be more easy-going,” while the cords in his neck stand out as tight as new rope, but he works so hard at being an actor that it detracts from the plight of his pathetic character. Gish’s unfussy raw talent is ultimately more moving.
Her scenes of growing up are lovely: the fun of schmoozing with the members of the Pink Pinky club, who paint only one fingernail with polish; the excitement of her first date, and the resulting terror of a falsie floating away across a swimming pool; the thrill of being fitted with a new dress by her racy aunt; the sadness after her Christmas gift is stonily unappreciated by her stepfather.
Desert Bloom, which premiered here earlier this year at the Seattle International Film Festival, was developed by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, which helps projects get off the ground that wouldn’t usually have much of a chance. However problematical the film may be, it’s a strong effort, and Redford’s group is to be commended for allowing the film to flower.
First published in the Herald, August 17, 1986
I still remember the mood of this film – which says something about it – and that Voight’s performance is sometimes scary in its intensity. This was Annabeth Gish’s first film. Sundance, as you could see, was still pretty new.